Cover The exterior of Duo, a mixed-use development designed by Büro Ole Scheeren, features residential and commercial spaces, as well as the Andaz Singapore hotel (image by Büro Ole Scheeren)

The newest generation of high-rise apartments in Singapore is more liveable than ever, thanks to a mix of local designers and the world’s best architects

The towers are unlike anything around them, emerging suddenly as you pass through the low-rise concrete blocks of Beach Road in Singapore’s Bugis precinct. Two curving columns project towards each other as if seeking an embrace. Lush greenery surrounds them on the ground floor, but it extends upwards, too, to the first floor, and the second, and to roof terraces even higher than that.

When they opened two years ago, the Duo towers attracted international attention thanks to their spotlight-grabbing architect, Ole Scheeren, who has worked on landmarks such as the CCTV headquarters in Beijing and the MahaNakhon tower in Bangkok, which looks as if it is dissolving even as it soars 78 floors into the sky.

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Duo stands out because of the unusual semi-circular arrangement of its towers, as well as the honeycomb pattern that covers much of their surface. Scheeren says those were both conceived as ways to adapt the buildings to their tropical climate: the curve to channel a constant breeze into the central courtyard, and the honeycomb to screen out the sweltering sun. “The question was, how can we make people feel good in the spaces we create?” he said, shortly after the buildings were completed.

In that sense, they’re far from unique, because Duo is part of a wave of thoughtful residential developments that have washed over Singapore in recent years. Designed by top international and local architects, they seek new ways to make high-rise living more comfortable.

“In the past few years, I think design in Singapore has been evolving very fast—especially architecture,” says Peter Tay, an interior designer who has worked on apartments and showflats in many of the new developments. “When I first started out, the architectural design wasn’t very mesmerising. Nowadays if you look at the cityscape, it’s fantastic.”

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Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, who designed Marina Bay Sands and Jewel Changi Airport, says the city-state has done well in promoting high-rise, high-density developments that don’t sacrifice quality of life.

“There are abundant examples of well-designed residential towers (in Singapore),” says Safdie. “They often feature generous windows to enjoy spectacular views, balconies and terraces, indoor and outdoor spaces, and a high measure of public communal amenities.”

Victoria Garrett, head of residential, Asia Pacific for Knight Frank, says this reflects a broad shift in Singapore’s property market. “Developers—especially in the mid-to-lower price tiers—have in recent years improved their product offerings by including high-end fittings and built-in branded appliances to attract buyers,” she says. “They’ve also focused more on landscaping and improving their amenities to cater to their buyers’ lifestyles and needs. Increasingly, developers are acknowledging the fact that homes can and should contribute to individual wellness.”

She sees the trend continuing despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. “Singapore’s residential market remains a safe-haven asset class with relatively low volatility,” she says. “In uncertain times, these qualities will be particularly attractive to investors looking to hedge their portfolio risks or for long-term estate planning. In the short-term, transaction volumes are expected to fall. Once the virus is contained, however, the market is likely to rebound quickly.”

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If recent history is any indication, you can expect even more eye-catching developments boasting a level of comfort and outdoor living that high-rise flats have rarely been able to offer in the past. “Greenery has infiltrated the whole cityscape,” says Tay. “In projects such as Duo and the South Beach development by Foster and Partners, it’s really about lifting the ground up and creating communal spaces higher up.”

You can see this in 3 Orchard By-The-Park, designed by Italian architect Antonio Citterio and completed in 2017. The luxurious complex consists of three 25-storey towers whose 77 units are meant to replicate the experience of living in a landed property; “villas in the sky” is how Citterio describes them. Some of the apartments have private lift lobbies and garden terraces; others have their own swimming pools.

Another example is Nouvel 18, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, which has 156 high-end units in a pair of 36-storey towers completed in 2014. The buildings are punctuated by sky gardens shrouded in greenery. The effect is similar to that of South Beach, a mixed-use development designed by UK practice Foster + Partners. Finished in 2016, it recreates a ground-level experience on multiple floors via elevated terraces, sky gardens and green walls.

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All of these lushly planted projects owe a debt to WOHA, the local firm that helped lay the groundwork for greenery-infused high-rise living. Beyond eye-catching landmarks such as Oasia and Parkroyal on Pickering, WOHA has designed a number of residential projects that were conceived as an alternative to shoebox-style apartment living.

Completed in 2013, each of the 210 units inside the two 12-storey blocks of the Goodwood Residence is shaded by operable aluminium sun screens. “It goes back to the black-and-white bungalows that have verandahs with teak blinds that go up and down,” says the project’s lead architect, Pearl Chee of WOHA. With the screens closed and the windows open, no air-conditioning is needed as the buildings are just one unit thick, allowing for constant cross-ventilation—along with views of the greenery that surrounds the complex. “There is a big emphasis today on recreating a ground-level-type environment in high-rises,” says Chee. “This is a very successful prototype of how we can make upper-level living spaces almost look like the ground. You almost feel like you are living in a bungalow, but in the air.”

Meyer House, another WOHA project in East Coast, goes one step further. WOHA architect Chan Ee Mun says the goal was to “replicate the experience of living in a landed home” in a multi-storey building, and to achieve that, the building was arranged around a 0.6-hectare courtyard. “The living areas are designed to spill out onto this internal garden,” he says. “Thanks to folding doors, the 15-m-wide living room of each apartment opens onto a large screened balcony, creating a seamless indoor-outdoor living space.”

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That was also Moshe Safdie’s goal in his firm’s latest Singapore project, Boulevard 88, whose two 28-storey towers will contain 158 units when they are completed in 2022. Most units feature large balconies or terraces, and the towers are connected by a two-storey, open-air skydeck. It’s a technique that Safdie has employed in his previous Singapore projects, including Sky Habitat and Marina Bay Sands, and he says it is well suited to a high-rise environment.

“The opportunity to bridge between the two towers provides us an optimal location—high up in the structure on the 28th floor—a generous space for communal amenities,” says Safdie. “It will enjoy an extraordinary view in all four compass directions, a unique swimming pool, deck area and other communal amenities.”

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It’s a feature that Safdie thinks will only become more common in the years to come. “Residential development in Singapore, in the future, will evolve to maximise the indoor-outdoor opportunities of the living environment, as well as the communal living facilities,” he says. “There will be a greater emphasis on sustainable architecture, the inclusion of generous open spaces, gardens and plant life in the complexes. Essentially, residential development in Singapore will move away from the standard, extruded tower solution to much more three-dimensional complexes which can accomplish the above-stated objectives.”

To put it simply, the architect says: “Singaporeans have it very good.”

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